This was almost a two-tier occasion on Centre Court: a thrilling, see-sawing Wimbledon semi-final, and an utterly delicious match in its own right as the power and aggression of Sabine Lisicki overcame the soft-touch tactician Agnieszka Radwanska, the German winning 6-4, 2-6, 9-7.
It was two hours and 18 minutes of high-quality and brilliantly contrasting grass-court play.
It was a match that simply kept on coming. At one set all and 3-0 up in the third set Radwanska, the No4 seed, had seemed to have hauled Lisicki in finally, breaking the German's serve five times in a row and ensnaring her opponent in those delightfully subtle on-court angles and changes of pace.
Lisicki, though, blew hot, then cold, then hot again, rousing herself as she had so stunningly against Serena Williams to find herself serving for the match for the second time. As she walloped a final decisive forehand to book a spot in Saturday's final Lisicki collapsed once again on to her back, before weeping profusely as she waved to all four corners of a purringly appreciative Centre Court.
As Wimbledon semi-final match-ups go, this was always likely to be one of the more obviously contrasting. Radwanska, of course, is the delicately skilled darling of the tennisatti, an athlete whose basic physical scale – she weighs 56kg, or half of George North – seems to offer a riposte to the dominant power game. Here she walked out on court to coos and cheers from a favourable crowd, looking frail and almost Garbo-ish next to Lisicki, who is four inches taller, noticeably more muscular, and carries with her the nicknames "Boom-Boom" and – slightly ungallantly – "Doris Becker".
It is hard to imagine an athlete less likely to be nicknamed Boom-Boom than the gossamer Radwanska, who began the match with an 86mph first serve and as early as the opening point was already deploying her arsenal of slices and fades and tricksy cross-court angles. Not that Lisicki lacks subtlety but she is above all a bounding, clean-hitting player, with wonderful timing in her flat, hard forehand. Lisicki had the greater early momentum, shortening the rallies by coming to the net and hitting with devastating power at times as she broke the Radwanska serve to go 4-3 up after 23 minutes and take control of a fascinating opening set. Lisicki held her own serve with a violent ace and for the first time there was a sense Radwanska – with her drop shots, her 72mph second serve, her floating geometry – might find herself simply out-muscled. Lisicki served for the set at 5-4, swatted aside a Radwanska break point, and after 33 minutes of high-intensity tennis she was halfway to her first grand-slam final.
It got better for the No23 seed as she broke serve to love in the first game of the second set, her all-round energy threatening to overwhelm her opponent Radwanska. But not just yet. Radwanska broke straight back, stepping in from the baseline to take the Lisicki serve early, hitting her groundstrokes flatter and breaking Lisicki again to go 3-1 up. So breathlessly in synch in the opening set, suddenly Lisicki was thrashing her racket about between points, all sense of pace abruptly vanished from her game. Successive double faults gave Radwanska a first set point, which she took as Lisicki drove wide on her backhand to make it one set all.
At which point the Pole looked utterly in charge, conducting the baseline rallies from behind her famous bravura crouching shot. Lisicki had failed to win a single service game in the set and she began the third by dropping serve again to go 2-0 down and – so it seemed – a decisive step closer to the SW19 revolving door.
Lisicki, though, has too much spunk to go down without a fight: she broke back and more surprisingly she finally held her own serve. Suddenly, and ominously for Radwanska, her first serve clicked back into that 115mph groove and the match was level again at 3-3, the momentum in that third set once again with the German.
Marion Bartoli awaits in the final. Lisicki, who has at times produced some thrillingly high-class tennis in this past week, will be favourite to win her first grand-slam title.
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image: © Bruno Girin